Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour: The Four Questions

Thanks to Donna Miscolta for inviting me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. I'm to answer four questions, then tag three more writers to continue the chain.

     1. What are you working on? I'm working on two books of poetry. The first, Driving Home from Mother's House, is about my mom, Anna Helfgott (1899-1996), who was for all of my life (little did I know it) the center of my life. Writing Mother onto the page helps me understand the strengths and weaknesses of our relationship and how that mother-daughter bond informed the relationships I had with my father, sister and brother, not to mention my own children and grandchildren and, of course, my two marriages. 
     I've been writing poems for this work since 1982 when I took classes from Heather McHugh and Nelson Bentley. I happened to have been in their classes because, while I was enrolled as a doctoral student in history, I needed to take a break. I thought poetry would be the best way to relax and have some fun. The poems encompass the various stages of my emotional and intellectual development, that is, from ages four years old or so, through elementary school years, high school, young adulthood and periods of aging and aging some more. Many of the poems have to do with my mother's political activism - her leftist and union activism in the 1930s and her involvement with the Seattle Gray Panthers in her later years. She was in practically every demonstration in Seattle until she was 90 years old, fighting for civil rights, women's rights, and most of all, a single-payer health care system. I hope to include some of Mother's poems in this collection. She was also in Nelson's classes. 

     The second manuscript concerns shadows my family lived with from the 1940s on: 1) the McCarthy era witch-hunts and 2) a hovering but absent much older half-sister - Leah (1926 - 2010) - from my father's first marriage whom I didn't meet until I was an adult. Then she told me "I don't want a sister." She did, however, embrace my brother, thereby reinforcing a class-difference and betrayal dynamic, as well as a woman-hate-woman kind of sexismMy sister Dorothy (1944- 2004) and I were not in our half-sister's obituary, though our brother was.  For me, this led to the devastating realization that Dot and I did not exist in a world that we carried with us (at least I did) since childhood and reinforced the fact that my brother had an extended (and internal) family that my sister and I were never invited into. This second manuscript is called My Two Dead Sisters
     2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? Obviously psychoanalysis informs my work, but everyone's work is different, as it should be. There's no jello mold for writers. We all have different voices and different life experiences, which we write from - or in spite of. I entwine different writing modalities into my work, as I did with Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013). Poets write in a variety of ways, entwining one genre with another. My last book, Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's (Cave Moon Press, 2014), I thought I'd do all in Tanka form, but something inside me refuses to conform and I ended up playing with the form and taking it into a variety of directions. 
     3) Why do you write what you do?I write what I have to write, to figure out what I'm thinking and feeling, to understand and to remember the past. This, so I can better understand its relationship to the present and why the present has turned out the way it has, to a certain extent at least. I'm psychoanalytic in my thinking and the oedipal drama is present in my work, as is the emphasis on the first few years of life, as they were defined by the ethnic, class-driven and sexist nature of my environment. Diary writing tells the truth of my internal experience perhaps more than anything else, and so I weave my diaries and some history - historical facts from my parents' lives and my half-sister's life - into both manuscripts, Driving Home from Mother's House and My Two Dead Sisters.
     Including the Diary within the space of poem and story helps me continue with my writing projects. I never liked compartmentalizing, separating one part of myself from another, as one needs to do when working in engineering, say, or cutting someone’s chest open to perform heart surgery, even writing a traditional biography; fortunately being a writer allows one to invent new forms, entwining pieces of one part of the self with another; so in my work I give myself permission to include diary entries into the whole of my texts.  I'm trying to do this in the history text I'm writing, but it's not so easy.

     4) How does your writing process work? As I mentioned above I write what I have to write. When I was experiencing Alzheimer's with my husband - and it was my experience as well as his, I as the caregiver and he as the holder of the disease - I continued keeping a diary as I have most of my life (the one period I didn't write in a diary was during the eight years of my first marriage). So along with my Seattle P.I. blog Witnessing Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's ViewDear Alzheimer's was born. Both came from my immediate experience, as it was happening. When Abe died, at one point I was having a hard time accessing my feelings. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't know how. So I played around with form; and Tanka helped me. With Tanka and its song-like style I was able to figure out what I wanted to say to Abe. I ended up writing love poems to him, which I hadn't known I wanted to do. That's how Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's came to be. 
     I'll end with this: For years, I've been working on a biography of the Viennese-born Seattle child psychoanalyst, Edith Buxbaum, Ph.D. (1902-1982). I wish I could say I'll finish that work in the next two years, but I need to complete my poetry manuscripts first-- so I can move on with my internal life. As one extended-family member said sarcastically: Watch out for those demons.   I do, by writing in poem and diary. But History is what I got my Ph.D. in after all, and I don't want to leave it behind  Plus, I love doing historical research and writing it up, as I have for example at HistoryLinkour wonderful encyclopedia of Washington State.
     When I finish Driving Home from Mothers House - 2015 projection date - and My Two Dead Sisters - 2016 projection date - I'm set on completing the Buxbaum project.  She was an important figure in Seattle's women's, psychoanalytic and social work history and she deserves her say. My goal is to help her say it by 2020. I won't even be eighty yet.

www.estherhelfgott.com 
MY UPCOMING READINGS
Thurs. Aug. 28 - Couth Buzzard Books
Thurs. Sept. 11 - Ballard Library
Sun, Nov. 9 - Jewish Family Service
I've tagged the following writers to join the Writing Process Blog Tour.

JennyNeill chases stories at the intersection of agriculture, wellness, and business with a keen interest in sustainability. Her career has taken her through a variety of communicator roles in corporate and non-profit work settings. She has also worked as a sommelier, assistant travel planner, and health content architect. Jenny lives in Seattle and loves wine, coffee, film noir, whale watching, cheering for Sounders FC, and crashing a good dance party when traveling abroad.
JosephE. Lerner  I have worked as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, editor, and small press publisher. My poems and flash fiction have appeared in 100 Word Story, deComP MagazinE, Gargoyle, Jet Fuel Review, Matchbook, Pif, PoetsWest, The Prose-Poem, and elsewhere. I'm also an alumnus of the Clarion SF Writers Workshops. 
ElisabethHanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her PhD in 2011 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’.  She publishes in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction. Publications include Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Quadrant and Griffith Review as well as in the journals, Life Writing and Life Writing Annual: Biographical and autobiographical studie. Her work appears in  psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and the United States, including Stories of Complicated grief: a critical anthology edited by Eric Miller PhD, (NASW press); Eavesdropping: The Psychotherapist in Film and Television, (eds) Lucy Huskinson and Terrie Waddell, Guilford Press, (Routledge 2015). She is an adjunct research associate at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.






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Sunday, June 22, 2014

From Jew to Jew: Dear Sharon

This is my response to your article, “We are here to stay,” in The Times of Israel, June 22,  2014: I wrote to you privately – cousin to cousin - not expecting my words to be printed in an online publication or anywhere else; but since you chose to publish them, I take this opportunity to stand by my words and to explain those that I did not clarify well enough.If you choose to use these words in print, my name should follow. I will not hide from them. 

I did not say that I was an atheist (though many respectable people are). Rather, I do not presume to know whether God exists or if the idea of God was created by human beings or if God Himself/Herself chose to inculcate that idea within us. I certainly do not presume to know what God or G-d promises to the Jewish people anymore than I know what God might promise to any other people. As far as I am concerned we of the human race are all one people and any “promise” God might make to one people I have no doubt that His or Her goodness would extend that promise to all people. 

When Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were kidnapped I was devastated – as you were -- devastated that this should happen and in my family’s – your family’s - neighborhood.  I felt as if those boys were my children, as much as you felt they were yours. Unlike you, I do not believe that prayer will bring those boys back to us. Good will and peace will bring them home. But Netanyahu and others seem bent on war and this is where I must clarify my words. I said “The whole world is looking for peace.” Here I was wrong. I do not believe that some like Netanyahu and Cheney, for instance, look for peace; rather, they seem to enjoy the fight. I do not. 

You write: "Perhaps those Jews in the US who do not believe in G-d and his promises to the Jewish people should not try to help us so much. Those who bless Israel will be blessed.”  Sharon, I am a secular Ashkenazi Jew, just as much a Jew as you are in your religiosity. My mother and your husband’s father - sister and brother - were just as Jewish in their secular thinking as you are in your religious thinking. Your late father-in-law, my Uncle Izzy, would be as appalled by what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians as my mother, Anna, was. I do not accept your telling me not to “try to help us so much.” Everyone must try, each in his or her own way. Jew and non-Jew alike. 

I am not a shul-goer, though I have tried that route-- to my leftist's mother’s surprise. What I see happening in American shuls and Temples, regardless of denomination, is an attempt to find identity through the state of Israel and the Law of Return. I do not feel that I have the right to make aliyah when I am not escaping prejudice. This is certainly not to say that there is no antisemitism here; there is, and in Europe and elsewhere. But the kidnapping had to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not antisemitism; we are not in the midst of a Nazi Holocaust. 

My homeland is North America. I do not feel I have the right to usurp land that I do not need out of fear that there will be another Holocaust or because God “promised” me the land. To my mind, that is an absurd notion used to maintain power, not peoplehood. Human beings wrote the Torah. You are using a religious, i.e., fictitious dictum, to gratify your needs and fantasies about what our world should look like. And it is our world, all of ours. We must negotiate on all sides to make it work for all of us. The best thing about Judaism -  and it is mine whether I am religious or not - is chesed/kindness. I do not see chesed coming from you toward the Palestinians any more than I see it coming from them toward you. 

You write: “Hamas terrorists have not shown even one photo of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.” Has Israel shown photos of all the children the IDF has killed? I want Eyal, Gilad and Naftali home and well. I also do not want other children or you and the rest of my family in Israel to be so cavalier as to think you can go anywhere you want, as if there is no danger, as if you own all the land. 

You may not think this letter comes with love but I assure you it does. If I did not love you, your husband and his sister - my first cousins - and the rest, I would not be so upset. I loved your husband's mother, my Aunt Ruth, all the while I knew how religious she was and what her attitudes were. Uncle Izzy loved her too, and that is why their children went to Hebrew school. It was not just because of Ruth; Uncle Izzy went along with it, just as everyone in the family did - Orthodox, leftist, secular - because we loved Ruth and still do, her memory. We also love a lot of other people and want them all to live in safety. 

Sometimes people who live far from the problem can see more than those who live closest. You will not shut me out of the discussion; in fact, you have brought my Jewish voice to the fore when I did not think I had one.        
        
Love to you and the family,              
Esther   


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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing to Heal

I haven't been here in quite a while. I've been over at the Seattle P.I. writing for the blog Witnessing Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's View, as well as a few other places.

This week I was honored to be asked to write a guest blog for alzheimer's.net, an important resource for the Alzheimer's community and I thought it important to post here as well as on the P.I. blog.

This short essay, Writing to Heal,  discusses my latest book Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's, just out from Cave Moon Press. The book launch will be at the Elliott Bay Book Co. up on Capitol Hill, Tuesday July 1, 2014 at 7 pm. The reading is free and everyone's welcome. The more the merrier! I hope you'll be able to make it.

I have a lot on my mind about what's going on in the world so I'll be using this blog for other issues as well. For now, thanks for stopping by,

Esther

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Monday, July 22, 2013

"Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems" Publication Date, August 2013

Dear Friends,

I'm so happy to tell you that my essays and poems are finally appearing between the covers of a book, put together so beautifully by Douglass P. Johnson and Cave Moon Press. It has been my honor to work with this project in conjunction with Doug, and I hope you will join us for our launch. Champagne included (if allowed). Thanks for your support, Esther

PLEASE JOIN US

BOOK LAUNCH FOR DEAR ALZHEIMER'S

ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY

Sunday September 8, 2013

3 P.M.

Published by Cave Moon Press, Yakima, WA., 2013



For more information, please visit www.estherhelfgott.com


 

                                 


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Friday, April 26, 2013

PoMo2013 - Poem 26 - Nikky Finney


Nikky Finney, Last night

Seattle Arts and Lectures' Poetry Series, 4/25/13 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 


 
Be generous, she said
after rounds of stand-up applause
for the 10th grade WITS* poet
who read her poem
before Finney walked on stage
to more stand-up
applause
from a Seattle audience
who made her feel,
she said, like a rock star.

Be generous she repeated.
Support your poets out loud.
Give them tools
to craft their work is
what Finney’s mother did
and her grandmother
and siblings
and her father too.
And then came Colleen McElroy
(in the audience)
who taught her excellence
and Lucille Clifton who,
finding the younger poet scrambling
and embarrassed at her door,
said:  Come on in child.
And then came Nikki Giovanni
whose own mother helped red-ink
Finney’s poems-in-progress.
and later paraded
them down the street.

Be generous, Finney said
support your kin
treat them as if
they are
already famous
so they 
learn
to say
their poems
out loud.

Be generous,
so the poet
can tell
her stories.
and tell them
true.

-Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/26/13

*Writers in the School

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

PoMo2013 - Poem 25 - "Accident"


 
 
 
 
 
 













Accident

The son and father
whose parents were killed
and wife and baby injured
by a drunk driver
across from the school yard
heard about the accident
on the news.
He had a hunch it was his family
and raced over to Harborview 
Hospital to find his life
was over
as he had known it.
Flowers line the curbside
along NE 75th
where the family's bodies
laid strewn across the street,
the drunk driver
leaning on a police car
and a first responder
so shaken he can't work
the district
for the next two weeks. 
When he returns,
the first call
he gets 
is from a
woman
poet
whose house
got egged. 
What a relief ,
his body
said.
 
-Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/25/13


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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

PoMo2013 - poem 24 - "To the Aspiring Poet"












1

Poems are to be
used in everyday life
is my answer to the aspirng poet
who wants to publish in the New Yorker
and nowhere else, except maybe a
peer-review journal that makes you wait
a year or more before a committee
decides your work
meets its editorial needs.

2

What this aspiring poet doesn’t know
is that poetry needs to sing in the rain
it needs to come alive in the middle of an afternoon.
It needs to dance 
in the dark
of night.

It’s not just the poet who needs
Poems have needs too.
They need to be outside
everyday, in the fresh,
or the stale, air.

3

This aspiring poet does the work of poetry. She writes .
She attends poetry gatherings and discusses her work
with other writers.
She reads in open mikes
and once in awhile
gives her own fifteen-minute readings.
She  keeps a journal of her days
and a notebook full of poems.
Most of all, she reads poetry, lots of poetry.
She doesn’t need a famous magazine to tell her she’s a poet.
She already is and shouldn’t hide her work
in envelopes waiting to be read.
Send them out, I tell her.
Or post them on a blog.

 4

But if I post them on my blog, she says,
the journals won’t accept them.
That’s their loss, I tell her.
Besides, the world is changing
The publishing world is.
Famous is not what it used to be.

5

The poem is a vehicle for responding
to current events, to the goings-on around you.
Poetry-making need not be a closed network,
unless you participate in making it so.
Speak your poems now, I advise this poet.
People are waiting to hear you. 
I'm waiting to hear you. 

-Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/24/13

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

PoMo2013 - Poem 23- "Fifth Grade"




Fifth Grade
  If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.
                                                                     - David Foster Wallace

 
When I was in elementary school,
I got A+’s in Handwriting.
In fifth grade, the only student
who came close to me in that subject
was a boy named Barry.
I don't know
what happened
to Barry and his handwriting
but mine led me
to hours of anguish.
 
I’d get all the way to the end of a page
without making a mistake
and then
on the last line
if my cursive wasn’t just right
and if an erasure
threatened
to expose my imperfections
I'd have to re-start.
 
My sister said I made her crazy
watching me
re-write
letters
to my 5th grade-pen pal.
And you know the envelopes
had to be perfect too (but that's
another story).

For class, I wrote my stories
over and over again
and I wrote with a #3 pencil,
as if I didn’t want anybody
to see what I was writing.

Mother kept telling me
to use #2 pencils,
but the print
didn’t look as pretty
on the page.

To make a long story short:
I got A+ in Handwriting,
but I didn’t turn
my work in
on time.

This led people to think I was slow.
- Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/23/13

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Monday, April 22, 2013

PoMo2013- poem 22 - A Woman Is


Circa 1946



 
 
A woman is

her body of work
which is
her thinking
inside her
pen

 



Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/22/13

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PoMo2013 Worth It - poem 21







Worth It

People
fight and fight
to stay alive
and
then
they die.
I don't get it.

If I believed
in God (for sure)
would my
questions be
the same?

On the other
hand,
the answers
don't matter.
It's the fight that's
worth it.
-Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/22/13

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

PoMo2013 "Call (My Baltimore) Sandy"


Today's To Do List

Call (My Baltimore) Sandy

1

Say hello to Sandy = half hour
Laugh with Sandy = one hour
Cry with Sandy = 15 minutes
Laugh with Sandy = half hour
Say goodbye to Sandy = 1 hour

2

Check your phone bill

3

Start
packing
for
reunion.
-Esther Altshul Helfgott
4/21/13

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